MLS Cup

Wilfried Nancy's man management key to Columbus Crew success: "He's special"

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – To know the Wilfried Nancy story is to understand his belief in perpetual growth trumps any single result in a soccer match, or maybe even in life.

Shaped by his own journey from globe-trotting youth to cerebral, if unathletic, defender in France’s lower divisions, Nancy rose through Canada's coaching ranks from Quebec's amateur leagues to CF Montréal’s academy to first-team head coach before making the bold move to leave Montréal at the height of his influence for a new challenge in Columbus. At every step of the journey, he's embodied his own belief that soccer is an “infinite game.”

“Like a father figure”

Approaching Saturday’s MLS Cup presented by Audi vs. defending champions LAFC (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free), Nancy's challenge for his team to become "limitless" has them peaking at the perfect moment. And his players, from youngsters who’ve risen from Columbus Crew 2 to veterans who’ve gracefully accepted diminished roles on the bench, all point to the coach's keen man management as a leading factor in their success.

“He’s been vital,” said Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte in Thursday’s press conference. “Just with how this year's gone for me, he's been at my back the whole year, and I can't thank him enough for everything he's done for me, from working with me one-on-one on a Tuesday in the middle of the year to working with me one-on-one this week.”

Schulte is one of a handful of players who Nancy promoted from the Crew’s MLS NEXT Pro affiliate ahead of the season. Despite down moments in the early half of the year – which included game-changing blunders in the team’s Hell is Real-derby loss to FC Cincinnati in May – Nancy stuck by his decision to keep the 22-year-old in a starting role over veteran Eloy Room, who mutually agreed to terminate his contract with the club in July.

That belief paid dividends in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, with Schulte coming up huge in extra-time wins over Orlando City SC and Cincinnati, the latter of which provided a key moment of rivalry redemption in Schulte’s first year as a top-division pro.

“He does that with everybody,” said Schulte of Nancy’s one-on-one mentorship. “And I think that what he does with the team really kind of just brought us all together. And I think he’s built the trust in us that builds the trust in each other. It starts with him.”

Aidan Morris, though in his fourth year as a pro, is another young player who’s made tremendous strides under Nancy. Tasked with the tall order of acting as a central hub in the pass-heavy system sometimes known as "NancyBall," Morris must provide an outlet to teammates under duress in possession – a roll that requires supreme technical and tactical confidence.

“We play such a unique style where Darlington [Nagbe] and I get the ball all the time and in the middle of the chaos and have to be like a cooling source for the team and a calming source and to control the rhythm and the tempo, and I think that's not always easy when the game is going 1,000 miles per hour,” said Morris on Tuesday. “Lots of respect to Wilfried giving me that role of being that calming influence.

"It’s tough. I’ll have a great game, and he’ll come up to me and tell me something he wants me to do better. It's like a father figure almost.”

Team of equals

For Nancy, a key to creating buy-in is making sure to never speak down to his players. In preparation for an MLS Cup week that’s provided its own unique challenges – like hosting a wave of visiting friends and family while staying focused on the task at hand – the head coach has made sure to let his players know he’s going through the same struggles they are.

“It’s going to be about communication,” said Nancy on Tuesday. “And also they are all adults. The way I talk to my players, I don't like to talk to my players like they are kids.

“I like to be at the same level as them because I have the same situation – to stop because 55 people wanted to come to my house to watch the game. I have to stop them because I need to sleep, I need to do other things. So we're all the same.”

That drive to treat every player with respect has helped Nancy keep key veterans who've lost starting spots engaged and ready to contribute – a feat that proved vital in the Eastern Conference Final when Christian Ramírez and Julian Gressel spurred a three-goal comeback after subbing on in the 65th minute.

“He’s special, obviously. Everybody can see that,” said Ramírez of Nancy after the match. “The way he sees football, the way he trusts his players, the way he demands excellence from everyone. I think he's getting that respect from the top to the bottom, and kept everybody engaged.

“And so you can only fight for someone like that. So many times you can feel that you're getting the bad end of the stick at certain moments, but I haven't felt that. I think most guys understand how he sees the game now. And we respect that.”

Of course, winning helps create buy-in, too, especially for Gressel, who was traded to Columbus as a presumed starter in July. Despite losing his starting place to another young Crew 2 graduate, Mo Farsi, the veteran wingback has remained laser-focused on lifting his second MLS Cup (the first coming with Atlanta United in 2018). After three playoff-less seasons with D.C. United and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, he knows the moments to win silverware are few and far between.

“You want to play all the time,” said Gressel on Thursday. “But at the same time, I know how big these stakes are and how little they come. Obviously for me, ever since my time in Atlanta, this is the furthest I've come, so it doesn't happen too often. I'm trying to cherish those moments and trying to play whatever role I can.

“And if that's just supporting Mo, for example, in a way that he will go out and have a great game, then that'll be it. But again, hoping to lift that trophy on Saturday.”